The sponsors of a controversial wind farm proposed for Somerset County have redesigned the project to benefit local residents and reduce visual impacts on the Appalachian Trail and Bigelow Preserve.
Independence Wind, the primary developer of the Highland Wind power project, announced the changes today as it filed a revised application at the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission.
The developers said they hoped the project would create a national model for how wind power could cut dependence on imported oil. They have agreed to give households in Highland Plantation a $6,000 “fossil fuel reduction” grant to take steps to cut their energy costs, including the installation of electric thermal storage heaters.
An area resident and leading critic of the project was not impressed by these concessions, however. Jonathan Carter, who lives in Lexington Township, said the project remains ill-conceived and will be opposed by anti-wind and forest preservation groups.
Independence Wind is led by former governor Angus King and Rob Gardiner, a former Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. president. The Highland Wind project would include 39 turbines and produce the equivalent electricity usage of 44,000 homes, according to the company. The $210 million project would create 300 construction-related jobs and pay more than $500,000 a year in taxes.
But the project has drawn opposition from Friends of Highland Mountains, a citizen group fighting large-scale wind projects in western Maine. They have raised concerns including noise from the turbines on local residents to the visual impact of the tall, lighted towers along remote ridges.
The revised application cuts the number of turbines from 48 to 39, removing those closest to the Applachian Trail and Bigelow Preserve. That would keep all turbines at least eight miles away from the high peaks of Bigelow Mountain, and reduce road construction by 30 percent.
“This was not an easy decision,” Gardiner said, “because removing these eight turbines eliminates almost 25 percent of the estimated energy production from the project and is a significant financial concession. But we felt that this is the right compromise between the pressing need to build good projects which substitute renewable power for fossil fuels, and the concerns of those who believed the original project would harm the recreational experience on the trail and at Bigelow.”
Along with the turbine removal, the project sponsors are giving the state a permanent easement prohibiting wind power development on the ridge where the removed turbines were to have been located. They also are giving over $750,000 for land conservation in the project area as part of the “tangible benefits” package required under Maine’s wind power law.
In terms of reducing oil use, households will have the option of installing heaters distributed by Thermal Energy Storage of Maine. The heaters use lower cost, off-peak electric power to heat dense ceramic bricks which are stored in a specially insulated cabinet.
As part of the demonstration project, Highland Wind will supply this electricity to Highland residents at a discounted cost which will be equivalent to about $1.15 per gallon of oil, well below the current $3 per gallon price in the area. A typical household would see a 600 gallon reduction in oil use each year, the company estimates.
“We’re really excited about this idea,” King said. “Maine is one of the most oil dependent states in the country and a huge portion of this oil is used to heat homes. We want to demonstrate here that we can replace that oil – not a drop of which comes from within Maine – with locally produced wind power which can be supplied at a long-term predictable price.”
In addition, the project is also donating a larger thermal heating unit to the University of Maine’s Offshore Wind Lab.
But Carter said the thermal storage option would have very little impact in Highland Plantation, which has roughly two-dozen homes. Almost all of the homes are heated with wood, he said.
Large-scale wind power doesn’t make economic sense without generous, government subsidies, Carter said, and the concessions simply are aimed at trying to win public support and LURC approval.
“This is just Angus and Rob feeding at the trough of the federal government’s largesse,” Carter said.